House Hearing Looks At Commuter Rail Needs

The House Railroad Subcommittee held a hearing on September 24 to examine the state of commuter rail in America.

The hearing heard testimony from four witnesses:

  • Paul Skoutelas, American Public Transportation Association (written testimony here)
  • Jim Derwinski, Chicago Metra (written testimony here)
  • Peter Rogoff, Seattle-area Sound Transit (written testimony here)
  • Stephanie Wiggins, Southern California Metrolink (written testimony here)

The hearing was poorly attended – a change in the House schedule meant that the hearing was held before the first floor votes of the week, which meant that most members were not in town, and the hearing coincided with the closed-door House Democratic Caucus meeting on whether or not to start impeachment proceedings against the President, which further depressed attendance).

Subcommittee chairman Dan Lipinski (D-IL) emphasized that it was important that the FAST Act of 2015 had a full-fledged railroad title and that he hoped this would continue in the next reauthorization bill. His statement made it clear that the themes of the hearing were interconnectivity and interoperability.

Interconnectivity. Because commuter rail, by definition (see below), connects to the national railroad system, freight railroads and Amtrak can cause delays for commuter rail. Derwinski several times emphasized that Chicago is uniquely crowded and his commuter railroad has no less than six at-grade crossings with other railroads. (You know how long you have to sit in your car at a grade crossing when a freight train passes? Imagine if you were a train running on a schedule.) Lipinski mentioned that Metra also has to use Chicago Union Station, which is owned by Amtrak, and Amtrak’s maintenance failures there have created problems for Metra.

Rogoff echoed Derwinski’s comments, noting how Amtrak delays can create a cascade of more delays on his Sound Transit lines: “When things go well, they go very well. When things go badly, they go very badly.” Rogoff suggested that the committee look into the reasons for Amtrak’s poor on-time performance.

Rogoff also mentioned that since the federal government generally can’t give financial aid to privately-owned railroads just to make them more efficient, Sound Transit has to pay its host railroad (BNSF) to make itself more efficient just so that Sound Transit can also get quicker performance (he said that his conversations with BNSF were “productive but expensive”). He said that Congress could find that a productive freight system was a public good, even though privately held, and provide funds to relieve freight rail bottlenecks.

Interoperability. The hearing also reaffirmed that the biggest remaining holdup in full implementation of positive train control (PTC) technology is interoperability between railroads. Derwinski stated that Metra will eventually have to have its PTC technology interoperable with no less than 13 other railroads and that they were about to start interoperability testing with five of them. Wiggins said that Metrolink had been able to achieve interoperability because the two host railroads and two tenant passenger railroads (Metrolink and Coaster) got into the same room and figured out the schedule and cost burdens. Rogoff said that Sound Transit had been fully ready to go with PTC in October 2018 but that Amtrak, which shared their main line, was on a slower schedule.

What is “commuter rail?” One may ask, what, precisely is commuter rail, and if the answer is mass transit, then why was this hearing in the railroad subcommittee instead of the transit subcommittee? Therein lies a tale. The federal government has exercised regulatory power over railroads since the enactment of the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887, because the federal government, not the states, controls interstate commerce. The safety part of this regulatory authority was transferred to the new Department of Transportation in 1967.

Here is how federal law (49 U.S.C. §20102) currently defines a “railroad:”

“railroad”–(A) means any form of nonhighway ground transportation that runs on rails or electromagnetic guideways, including-

   (i) commuter or other short-haul railroad passenger service in a metropolitan or suburban area and commuter railroad service that was operated by the Consolidated Rail Corporation on January 1, 1979; and

   (ii) high speed ground transportation systems that connect metropolitan areas, without regard to whether those systems use new technologies not associated with traditional railroads; but

(B) does not include rapid transit operations in an urban area that are not connected to the general railroad system of transportation.

This is why the federal government does not have the power to regulate mass transit safety except as a condition of the receipt of federal funding, except for mass transit systems that cross state lines (WMATA, which is also uniquely federal because of the District of Columbia). No interstate commerce, no underlying federal regulatory power.

Most of the big commuter rail systems operate service that was originally provided by private, for-profit railroads but was abandoned as unprofitable (or due to railroad bankruptcy) starting in the late 1950s. The Long Island Rail Road was part of the Pennsylvania Railroad system, the Metro-North Railroad was part of the New York Central Railroad system, SEPTA service was originally provided by the Pennsy and the Reading Company, MBTA service was originally provided by the Boston & Maine, the New York, New Haven and Hartford, and the New York Central, etc. etc.

Some of the new commuter rail services don’t directly replace abandoned passenger service but do operate on the lines used by freight railroads, which are still FRA jurisdiction (Metrolink, for example).

In 2018, 56 percent of total U.S. commuter rail ridership was in the New York-New Jersey area. 498 million total passengers were carried.

Metro Area Commuter Rail System Pax
New York City Long Island Rail Road 106.3
New Jersey New Jersey Transit 86.8
New York City Metro-North Railroad 86.4
Chicago Metra 68.5
Philadelphia SEPTA 34.4
Boston MBTA 32.2
San Francisco Caltrain 18.9
Los Angeles Metrolink 10.7
Baltimore-DC MARC 9.2
Denver RTD 7.6
Salt Lake City UTA FrontRunner 5.1
Seattle Sounder 4.6
Washington DC Virginia Railway Express 4.5
Miami/S. FL Tri-Rail 4.4
Chicago NICTD South Shore Line 3.4
15 other commuter rail systems combined 14.7

However, until recently, the Federal Railroad Administration did not have any money to give to passenger railroads other than Amtrak, while the Federal Transit Administration did. So commuter rail looks to FRA for its regulation and to FTA for its annual funding (plus, in the last few years, some FRA positive train control grants or FAST Act rail grants).

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